REVIEW: “What Happened to Lani Garver” by Carol Plum-Ucci

What Happened to Lani Garver

Carol Plum-Ucci
Harcourt Inc., 2002

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge

Finished 10 June 2010

What Happened to Lani Garver is a very complicated novel, so I suppose it’s only fitting that my response to it was equally complicated. The story revolves around the internal and external struggles of Claire, a cancer survivor in her last year of High School. Claire feels distanced from her friends by her illness, and is doing her best to pick up where she left off, but she can’t escape the fact that she is different — that there’s a darkness simmering under her pretty-cheerleader surface, struggling to come out. When newcomer Lani Garver comes to town, Claire’s reality starts breaking open. Lani is either a very feminine boy or a very masculine girl, nobody is sure which, and this ambiguity becomes the focus for so much anger and resentment in the people around him that Lani is ultimately swallowed up by it. But not before befriending Claire and helping her to find her own middle ground. And not before giving her – and the reader – the impression that he (as Lani is referred throughout the novel) might just be something more than a too-smart street kid of uncertain gender. He might just be a floating angel in disguise.

The main thing I took away from this book was a sense of deep disquiet at the extent to which people will go to keep their realities “convenient.” This is a recurring theme throughout the novel, and while at times I think it is a little too overdone – too bluntly stated – it certainly raises some very interesting points. Lani is the catalyst for Claire’s awakening, not only to parts of herself that she has been denying but also to the fact that she and the people around her have been looking at life through, if not rose-coloured glasses, then at the very least glasses which reduce things to problems they can deal with, rather than things they can’t explain. Lani, for example, becomes a perverted, drag-wearing gay kid who needs to be taught how to fit in, and by the climax of the novel they are so blinded by this conviction that they are driven to attempt to drown him. Only Claire looks beyond the convenient assumptions and prejudices to see who (or what) Lani really is.

The main thrust of the novel is therefore about tolerance, but it goes beyond merely “accepting” people for their differences and asks the reader to question the very basis of the assumptions they make about others and the world on a daily basis. We are presented with both sides of the story: Lani as Claire’s friend, innocent to the point of stupidity on some significant points, but blunt enough and crazy enough to see through a lot of human bullshit at the same time. On the other hand, we also see him as the others must have seen him; not quite normal, a little strange, not enough of one thing or another to decide what he is, let alone how to treat him — an unknown quantity and potential threat. Plum-Ucci plays on innate human fears of the unknown and unclassifiable, showing us what can happen when we are pushed out of our comfortable, known world and into a reality which is infinitely less convenient.

Coincidentally, I was recently talking to a friend of mine about boxes and labels, and how neither of us can understand why everyone is so intent on fitting everyone into them. This novel is pretty much my own objections writ large, and I enjoyed seeing things play out. I will say that the writing left something to be desired; there was a lot of repetition (especially of the word “spew” which was annoying) and some things felt a little flat, or a little too confusing. However, I found myself caring about the characters and became fully engaged in their struggles, to the point where I wanted to punch one of the characters (Macy) in the face a few times. Plum-Ucci has a gift for vivid characterisation and insight, which I very much enjoyed.

A very thought-provoking book, well worth a read for teens and adults alike.

RATING:

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  1. July 1st, 2010

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